The time has come to rethink the 1880 Mennonite Great Trek to Central Asia. This suggestion arises in part from the Great Trek Tour of May 27 to June 7, 2007. Our tour traced part of the route of those who migrated to the Russian frontier of Central Asia from the colonies of Molotschna in the Ukraine and the Trakt in the Volga region. Those migrants established two settlements--one in the Talas Valley north and east of Tashkent, and one near Khiva in what is now western Uzbekistan. Our study and observations before, during, and after the tour convinced us that the traditional narrative of the Great Trek is misleading in some key respects. I came to realize that I had not been doing a very good job of teaching this topic in Mennonite history classes at Bethel College over the past quarter century.

It is more than three decades since Herald Press published Fred Belk’s book, The Great Trek in 1976.1 That volume touched off a wave of commentary about Claas Epp, Jr. and the Great Trek. The most substantive review of The Great Trek was by Waldemar Janzen in Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1977).2 Belk’s research and writing also helped inspire Dallas Wiebe’s novel, Our Asian Journey, a fictional account that gives imaginative access to the lived experiences of people who were on the Great Trek. Although the significance of Belk’s book should not be discounted, new questions have arisen and new perspectives must be taken into account. This essay intends to lift up the questions more than to provide definitive answers.3

Four sets of questions need to be addressed in the process of rethinking the Great Trek and its consequences.

Leadership

The story of the Great Trek as told in North America emphasizes the role of Claas Epp Jr. as the dominant leader of the movement to Central Asia. This viewpoint owes much to the published first-person account by Franz Bartsch, a one-time youthful disciple of Epp who joined the Great Trek but became disillusioned and left in December 1881 when the group was stranded at the border of Bukhara and the Russian empire.4 Bartsch’s account reflects his own experience as one from the Trakt colony who had personally been inspired by Claas Epp, Jr., who believed he had been deluded, and who wanted to warn others against following false prophets. The Mennonite Historical Atlas by William Schroeder and Helmut T. Huebert, an indispensable guide to the Great Trek route, used the label, Claas Epp Journey to Central Asia, even for the major portion of the route that Epp himself did not traverse.5

Fred Belk in his book, The Great Trek, used Claas Epp, Jr’s leadership as a unifying thread for his narrative. Waldemar Janzen’s review-article, quoting from Bartsch, re-emphasized Epp as leader:

No one can deny the central role played by Claas Epp, Jr. It was his preaching and writing which spurred many in the Trakt settlement to set out. . . . It was Epp also who set the schedule of millennial events, culminating in the expected return of Christ in 1887, later revised to 1889 . . . . Beyond providing this theological, temporal and geographical frame of reference for his followers, Epp accompanied their moves with encouragement, advice and interpretation in practical as well as spiritual matters, both through his letters and his spoken word.6

Was Claas Epp Jr.’s role as central as Bartsch, Belk, Janzen and others have claimed? Over against the Bartsch-Belk emphasis is the testimony of elder Johannes Janzen, who lived in the Central Asian Talas Valley settlement and had fled from Russia in 1930. In Janzen’s view, the original impulse of the movement to go East came more from the Molotschna Colony than from the Trakt Colony where Epp lived. Janzen wrote that the originator of this movement to Turkestan is not the Claas Epp who appears in [Franz Bartsch’s book] as the hero of the entire affair. On the contrary, Epp joined the movement in the Molotschna after it had arisen, and attempted to set himself up as leader.7

The primary leader of the Molotschna group was Abraham Peters, pastor of the Orloff-Neukirch congregation. Peters’ wagon train, the largest of the five wagon trains that left for Central Asia in 1880-1881, included about 80 families and 75 wagons. Nearly all members of this group, joined by other families from the Volga region colony, Am Trakt, eventually established four Mennonite villages in the Talas river valley south of Aulie Ata. The Talas valley settlement quickly became the most prosperous and well-populated of the Great Trek settlements. There is no evidence that Claas Epp Jr. significantly influenced Abraham Peters or others in the Molotschna group in their decision to migrate to Central Asia. To be sure, some of them must have read Epp’s commentary on the book of Daniel, first published in 1878.8 But the Peters Gemeinde, as it came to be called, would have made its Great Trek quite apart from Epp’s teaching, preaching, and writing.

In the Molotschna group was Elizabeth Unruh, a fourteen year old girl who kept a diary and later wrote about the Great Trek in an autobiography. According to Unruh’s account, her people met Claas Epp, Jr. and a few other preachers from the Trakt colony after the long journey from Molotschna and crossing the Volga River. Epp’s teaching of Bible prophecy was something new for them. We had Bible Studies in the forenoons, and services in the afternoons. Such explaining of Bible truths, ours had never heard before.9 If Epp’s teaching was in fact new to the Molotschna people, he was surely not the originator or the leader of the movement for them.

But wasn’t Claas Epp Jr. the dominant leader of the Great Trek movement in the Trakt colony? The evidence is not conclusive. There were other leaders who reached their conclusions about Bible prophecy apart from Epp, who were in charge of their own sub-groups on the Trek, and who in various ways resisted Epp’s initiatives. Dallas Wiebe, in an excellent analysis of Claas Epp’s Timetable for the Second Coming, suggested that other Mennonite ministers considered themselves just as important as Epp.10 A reassessment of leadership in the Great Trek movement will need to take fuller account of the role of Trakt colony leaders such as Martin Klaassen, Heinrich Jantzen, Jacob Toews, Johann Epp, Johannes K. Penner, and Wilhelm Penner.

Claas Epp Jr. was significantly absent at key moments as the movement unfolded. He did not hold an official position as ordained minister, village mayor, or colony representative. He was not present with any of the several delegations that went to St. Petersburg to negotiate with top officials of the Russian empire for permission to migrate to Central Asia.11 Nor was Epp one of the men who in December 1879 made a special trip to Tashkent to get assurances from Governor-General Constantine von Kaufmann that Mennonites would be welcomed, given land, and exempted from military service in Central Asia.12 In fact, Epp was one of the late arrivers in Turkestan. He was on the fifth and final wagon train, which did not leave the Trakt colony until more than a year after Abraham Peters’ group had left from Molotschna. This meant that Epp was absent for the key early months that Mennonites were getting started in Central Asia. He attempted to exercise leadership through letters he sent from the Trakt, claiming the Lord is writing to the church of Philadelphia. But he was not actually present at the time when the migrants separated into groups with different destinations. The largest body (nearly all the Molotschna people, and many from the Trakt) settled in the Talas Valley near Aulie Ata. A smaller group chose Epp’s recommended route to seek an open door in Bukhara, three days journey south of Samarkand.

Epp was a controversial would-be leader, outside the Mennonite establishment, who was absent at key moments in the migration movement and who failed to convince the largest number of migrants on the Great Trek to follow him. He did have a magnetic personality, a powerful sense of special truths revealed to him directly by God, and an ability to outdo most of his contemporaries in authoritative quotation and interpretation of obscure Bible texts. On June 12, 1882, Epp finally caught up with the Great Trek remnant at the border of Bukhara. He managed to establish himself as the central, but by no means unchallenged, leader of that group. In 1884 when Epp’s group arrived at their final destination of Ak Metchet near Khiva, only 38 families remained. Epp never had full control of the Great Trek movement. Along the way, the number of his followers declined rather than grew.

Epp’s authority eroded as his prophecies failed to materialize. The anticipated open door to Bukhara was not opened; the Great Tribulation in Europe and mass refugee migration eastward that were supposed to precede the return of Christ did not take place; another alleged open door settlement site on the Amu Darya river north of Khiva was not viable; and in 1889 and 1891 the dates designated for Christ’s return (or for Epp’s ascension) came and went like all days. After all these failures, Epp at Ak Metchet finally lost control of his flock. He was reduced to leading a very small group of family members and hard core true believers who worshiped in his home. Even his son Claas Epp III left with his family to go to America. The main body of the Ak Metchet Mennonites worshiped in the white church at the center of their village.

Millennialism

Another challenge for rethinking the Great Trek is to understand the role of apocalyptic expectation as a motive of the movement. Was millennialism the dominant motive of those who went to Central Asia? Waldemar Jantzen’s 1977 article presented a strong case that the Great Trek was much less determined by Epp’s chiliasm than is commonly assumed. Jantzen suggested that Epp’s teaching performed a triggering function, determined certain decisions concerning the timing and the geography, and added its accents of fervor and hope, as well as excess and blindness, to a migration which was in many ways paradigmatic of Mennonite migrations through the centuries.13 Jantzen noted that the Great Trek was prompted by the threat of military conscription, that it resulted in two Mennonite settlements, and that the success of the settlements had little to do with millennialism. Unfortunately, Jantzen’s article has had little influence upon popular Mennonite images of the Great Trek. More typical is Walter Unger’s 1999 essay that saw the Great Trek as an instance of Mennonite Millennial Madness.14

There can be no doubt that millennial expectations were a part of Prussian and Russian Mennonite thinking in the nineteenth century. Some of those who migrated to North America, such as Wilhelm Ewert, elder of the Ober-Nessau Mennonite Church in West Prussia, referred to the Mennonite church as the Brautgemeinde,-- the pure bride of Christ that awaits the day when swords will be made into plowshares.15 Other Mennonite leaders in Prussia, influenced by the Pietist reform movement, opposed the revolutionary and rationalistic consequences of the French Revolution. They turned toward the east. They expected that Russia, with its conservative Christian czar, would be a place of refuge from the coming social and political chaos in western Europe.

Martin Klaassen, a teacher in the Am Trakt village of Koeppenthal, in 1874 (three years before Claas Epp, Jr.’s commentary on the Book of Daniel) published a survey of Mennonite history, Geschichte der Wehrlosen Taufgesinnten Gemeinden. Klaassen expected that Mennonites would have to migrate to a place of refuge in the desert, in one of the lands of the rising sun. Thither God will rescue the little company of his own, the little flock for the times of the last judgments.16 But were such doctrines the dominant motive, or even the trigger, of the movement to Central Asia?

To adequately reassess the motives behind the Great Trek, scholars should return to the primary sources, rather than depending upon the secondary literature such as Belk’s book and its reviewers. How did the leaders of the trek explain themselves in letters and in articles in the church papers? We may expect a conclusion much like that of Helmut Harder, after examining the writings of Trek leader Jacob Toews. In his biography of Jacob Toews’ son David, Harder says of Jacob Toews, His emphasis was more on exemption from military service than on a date and place for meeting the Lord.17 In the September 1880 issue of German Mennonite periodical Gemeindeblatt, unnamed Great Trek leaders stated their reasons for migrating to Turkestan primarily in terms of separation from the world and the desire to put God’s claims above those of the state. The statement, as a later point, also said that the signs of this time made clear that God’s day of wrath and judgment was imminent (Rev. 6: 15-17).18

Even though the theme of millennialism is manifested in the writings of Russian Mennonite leaders, Waldemar Janzen’s judgment that the doctrine served a triggering function may be misleading. So far as timing is concerned, the trigger of the migration was the Russian empire’s implementation of military conscription in 1880--the year that the first Great Trek wagon trains left home. The Russian government had offered the option of forestry service as an alternative to military service, and Molotschna Mennonites were organizing forestry camps. Those who chose to go to Central Asia believed that the forestry service was too great a compromise with an evil system. They did not leave home until they got a promise from Governor-General Constantine von Kaufmann in Turkestan that they would be exempt from military service for fifteen years. Their explanations of the reasons for emigrating almost always emphasized the theme of separation from the world more than the expectation of Christ’s return.19 The date that Epp eventually set for Christ’s return was almost a decade after the migration. Millennialism apparently was more background than trigger.

Moreover, the Mennonites were clearly motivated by the promise of land for settlement. Although they had not actually visited in advance the Talas Valley where most of them eventually settled, they did not leave their homes until they had some assurance that farm lands would be available. Migrating Mennonites throughout their history were more likely to publicly articulate religious reasons than the economic motives for their decisions to move.20 It is impossible to determine with certainty the exact balance in the mix of motives behind such complex individual and community decisions. But later observers can be easily dazzled by the dramatic stories of the Lord’s failed return to Ak Metchet in 1889 and 1891. It is a mistake to read that bizarre outcome into the history of the previous decades.

Community Building

A third task for rethinking the Great Trek is to examine the successes of the migrants of 1880-1884 in establishing viable community life in Central Asia. North American Mennonites are inclined to remember the Great Trek as an event of failed millennialism. But the more impressive story may be one that is substantially unknown--the thriving village economic, social, and religious life that Mennonites created in the settlements in the Talas Valley and in Ak Metchet near Khiva. Both of these settlements lasted for fifty years. Neither one has been the subject for a fully rounded history.

Johannes Janzen’s article in Mennonite Quarterly Review on the Talas Valley communities, referred to above, is the most complete account of those villages. The memoir of Herman Jantzen, who first lived in Khiva and later in the Talas Valley, also has much fascinating information.21

A Jewish historian, Dov B. Yaroshevski, has published two short articles about the Mennonites at Ak Metchet, attempting to tell the story in the context of the Khanate of Khiva. Yaroshevski described the Mennonites as agents of modernization in the milieu of a traditionalist Muslim society. He also discovered that the Ak Metchet Mennonites in 1934 had celebrated the 50th anniversary of their settlement with a historical drama of three acts and forty five scenes performed by their school children. The drama told the story of the community from the Reformation struggles in the Netherlands and of the migrations to Prussia, Russia, and to Khiva. Remarkably, the drama did not mention Claas Epp, Jr. The Mennonite leaders at Ak Metchet in 1934 apparently considered Epp’s leadership to be an embarrassment that would be best forgotten.22

Dilaram Inoyatova, an Uzbek historian in Tashkent whose special interest is German settlements in Central Asia, has done research and publication on the Ak Metchet Mennonites. Inoyatova sees the German-speaking settlements in the context of the multicultural character of Uzbekistan’s national history. She is part of a wider movement of interest in Mennonite communities by non-Mennonite historians and social scientists in the Ukraine, Russia, and former republics in the Soviet empire.23

Ironically, the village of Ak Metchet, scorned as it often was by other Mennonites, today is remembered and celebrated in Khiva more enthusiastically than larger settlements elsewhere. People in Khiva give Mennonites at Ak Metchet credit for excellent wood craftsmanship, for agricultural production, and for introducing new technologies including photography. Khiva is a tourist destination city on the famous Silk Road from China to the West. In the 1970s a museum exhibit there included Mennonite artifacts. Today plans are under way for a larger Mennonite museum in the old walled city of Khiva.

It can be a great surprise for North American Mennonites to visit Central Asia and discover very different contexts for interpreting and appreciating the legacy of Mennonites who were on the Great Trek. The story shifts from a millennialist drama to a celebration of successful community building and modernization.

Muslim-Christian relations

Finally, the Great Trek should be reevaluated in the light of troubled Muslim-Christian relations in the twenty-first century. Alan M. Guenther of Saskatchewan has called for greater attention to occasions when Mennonite communities existed side by side with Muslim ones, and both communities learned to know one another at a more intimate level.24 One remarkable instance of Muslim hospitality to Mennonites was in the winter of 1881-2 when the Mennonites were stranded in the village of Serabulak on the border of Bukhara. The Muslims of Serabulak invited the Mennonites to use their mosque for Sunday worship services and other meetings. Two Mennonite couples were married, and twenty-one Mennonite young people were baptized, in that mosque. A high moment on the Great Trek tour this past spring was on June 3, 2007, when we visited this Kyk-Ota (Blue Grandfather) mosque and thanked the local religious leaders for their hospitality to our spiritual ancestors.

Kyk-Ota mosque at Serabulak (photo by Jim Juhnke)

From 1884 to 1935 the Mennonite community at Ak Metchet had remarkably favorable relationships with the Muslim authorities in Khiva. They provided services as wood craftsmen and seamstresses for the Khan of Khiva, and, after 1924, for the ruling Communist authorities. Two Mennonites gifted in languages, Herman Jantzen and Emil Riesen, served as translators and advisors in the Khan’s court. Historian Dov Yaroshevski has suggested that Riesen’s contacts with Germany may have been responsible for the Khan’s decision to turn to Germany for electrical equipment for the palace.25

In 1909 the Mennonites of Ak Metchet were naturalized as Khivan subjects. They had the rights and duties of a protected community, the dhimmis, according to Islamic law, shari’a. This was the same category that ruling Muslims used to define the civic status of Jews in Bukhara, or of Christians in medieval Spain. Yaroshevski says the Mennonites may have been second class subjects, but they were guaranteed what they wanted: avoidance of state oath and of military service, community self-government and control of education.26 After the Communists took control in the 1920s and 1930s, the Mennonites somehow managed to gain exemption from collectivization and outside control for several years after the local Uzbek economy had been collectivized.

Our 2007 tour group was surprised to learn that local folk in Ak Metchet and Khiva have positive memories of the Mennonites as excellent craftsmen and agriculturalists. The fact that Mennonites resisted the Communist regulations is a matter for admiration. To this day, at the beginning of each planting season, a local Muslim imam comes to the site of Mennonite cemetery and offers prayers of blessing for good crops--an acknowledgment of the extraordinary agricultural productivity of these earlier settlers. The plans for a Mennonite museum in Khiva are a reminder of a remarkable relationship. Where else in the world are the artifacts of Mennonite craftsmen celebrated in a royal museum?

Historians of the Great Trek owe a great debt to the pioneering historical and literary work of Fred Belk and Dallas Wiebe. The task of rethinking the Great Trek will require both refined categories of analysis and fresh research into primary historical documents. We can expect that historians and social scientists in Central Asia will contribute significantly to this effort in the coming years. Renewed Mennonite tourism to sites of the migration and settlement will prompt new investigations. The result may be greater appreciation of a dramatic event in Mennonite history that has long been misunderstood.